Second Amendment History: Biggest Supreme Court Cases to Affect Gun Control

Young activists calling for more gun control legislation should be more ambitious in their nationwide effort and focus on repealing the Second Amendment, according to retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

In an op-ed published Tuesday in The New York Times, Stevens praised the students and young people who rallied in Washington and around the country over the weekend as part of the March for Our Lives. The demonstration was sparked by the shooting last month at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 people, including 14 students, dead.

Stevens wrote that he had "rarely" seen such a wide scope of "civic engagement" from young people in his lifetime and encouraged their efforts to go even further.

"That support is a clear sign to lawmakers to enact legislation prohibiting civilian ownership of semiautomatic weapons, increasing the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 years old, and establishing more comprehensive background checks on all purchasers of firearms," Stevens wrote. "But the demonstrators should seek more effective and more lasting reform. They should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment."

But the Supreme Court has generally been skeptical of measures to rein in gun rights. Here are some of the most important cases decided by the Court on Second Amendment issues.

Signs sit near in Washington, D.C.'s Lafayette Park following the March for Our Lives rally on March 24. Getty Images/Zach Gibson

U.S. v. Cruikshank, 1876

This case was one of the first decided by the Court involving the Second Amendment. It stemmed from the Colfax Massacre in 1873, during which armed white men killed more than 100 black men. Some of the accused then challenged the law under which they were convicted, and the Supreme Court sided with them. The Court found that the Second Amendment only protected citizens from the federal government infringing on their gun rights and did not apply to states or private citizens, according to the Federal Judicial Center.

"The Second Amendment means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the National Government," the Court's ruling reads.

U.S. v. Miller, 1939

In this oft-cited case, two Arkansas men claimed the National Firearms Act violated their right to keep and bear arms. They were transporting a sawed-off double barrel shotgun across the state lines when they were arrested.

But the Supreme Court found that the Second Amendment protects weapons that could be useful to a state militia and that their sawed-off double barrel shotgun did not fit the bill. In his writing of the majority opinion, Justice James Clark McReynolds said such a weapon did have "any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia."

District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008

More recently, the Court has ruled in favor of gun owners. The District of Columbia made it illegal to carry an unregistered firearm and outlawed handgun registration, but also granted the local police chief the power to issue one-year licenses for handguns. The district also said legal gun owners had to keep their firearms unloaded and disassembled when at home.

However, a special police officer was turned down for a one-year license to keep a handgun at home, even though he was allowed to carry a handgun while on duty.

The Court agreed with his challenge, asserting, "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home."